In the shadow of terror

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By Fatima Najm

As the United States sifts through the wreckage of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Muslims are finding themselves in the crosshairs of negative public opinion. They’re stuck between the fear of millions of people with an unnamed enemy and a misconception that all terrorists are Muslim.

Fatima Khan, a first-year retail management student, feels that fear in the heart of downtown Toronto – one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. “I love the Muslim way of life, but the image of us is very bad out there,” says Khan. “I haven’t done anything, not have millions of other Muslims. Why are being blamed for acts of a few terrorists?”

Confusion about Islam and its followers is causing a marked increase in hate crimes around the world and in backyard. The misconceptions that threaten to mangle an understanding of the Muslim, Arab and Asian world are mostly generalizations made in the popular culture. Some quick corrections that are only the tip of the iceberg include:

-All brown-skinned people are not of Middle Eastern origin.

-All Arabs are not Muslims.

-Islam is the faith, Muslim is the name of the people who follow it.

-Afghanistan is not an Arab country.

-Iranians are Persians, not Arabs.

-A Pakistani could be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Durzi.

-Qura’anic scriptures do not allow for the massacre of innocent people.

-Being Palestinian does not mean you are Muslim.

-If you are Muslim you could be Shi’ite Muslim or Sunni Muslim. There are as many denominations of Islam as there are of Christianity.

-Some Muslim women do not wear the religious head scarf.

Across the province, police have stepped up patrols of religious centres. Apart from the threats received to Muslim mosques, confusion among some angry people going for retaliation is leaving any culture – essentially anyone who could possibly be perceived as Muslim – open to attack.

On Saturday, a fire engulfed Samaj Temple, which serves 800 Hindus, in Hamilton. The Ontario Fire Marshal is treating the blaze as arson, probably making it a case of mistaken identity. A nearby mosque had also been vandalised. On Saturday, Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49 was shot to death while doing landscape work outside his Chevron gas station in Mesa, Ariz. Francisco Roque, 42, was held on $1 million bond in connection with the shooting that police said could have been racially motivated.

Jugraj Singh, a second-year aerospace engineering student was stunned at the arrest of a Sikh man on an Amtrak train last Wednesday in the U.S. for his possible connection with the terrorist attacks. His beard and turban liken him to the image of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. “I feel violated,” he says. “An innocent Sikh was arrested for having a beard and for wearing a turban and for carrying a kirpan (dagger). Carrying dagger in a country where firearms are legal shouldn’t be a big deal. Plus he was persecuted for following his faith.” The kirpan is a vital part of the Sikh identity and the arrested man was later cleared of having any connection to bin Laden.

The name Osama bin Laden has been enough to strike fear around the world and achieve the essential goal for terrorism – while forcing people no less innocent as the thousands of victims of the attacks to go into hiding.

Qura’an Chapter 5 : V35

“Whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for the murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as having saved all mankind.”

Muslims shake their heads over newspaper reports of women being harassed on the TTC, mosques receiving phone threats and assaults against people with Middle Eastern sounding names.

Fauzan Khan, president of the Muslim Student’s Association at Ryerson, is concerned about the confused perception of what exactly a Muslim is. “They are judging me because of what they think Islam is all about.” He hopes that the growing resentment is quelled before law-abiding Muslim citizens of Canada are further victimised. “We are living in the 21st century, in a civilized society. Let’s act like it.”

Khan is deeply disturbed that Islam is the focus of a derogatory spotlight with blame for the attacks on the U.S. being attributed collectively to Muslims. “Muslims regret what has happened. But the connect this horrific act to Islam is wrong,” he said. “Islam is a peace-loving religion. The act of terrorism is not an act of worship, it is a crime.”

Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman spoke out quickly after last week’s attacks that have left a death toll in the thousands. He, along with the city’s religious leaders, are asking for tolerance. But while the city of Toronto prides itself on being one of the most multicultural on the planet, ignorance reared its head here well before the last week’s destruction.

In neighbouring Mississauga, South Asian protesters picketed Mayor Hazel McCallion this past May after she remarked to Diane Francis at the National Post that immigrants represented a burden on the Ontario health system. “If you go to the Credit Valley Hospital the emergency is loaded with people in their native costumes. A couple will come here as immigrants and each bring over their parents. Now you have four people who never contributed a nickel toward our medical system using it at an age when they will cost everyone a great deal of money,” said McCallion. The 80-year-old widely popular mayor also said she finds that immigrant children who enter classrooms not knowing “a word of English” force “the school system to adapt to them the day they land,” creating problems for the “other 31 students.”

One of the key factors of media stereotyping is a lack of exposure to other cultures. While many Canadians have friends of a wide array of races and religions, an incomplete picture of Muslim life and values is flashed on the television screen.

Education about Islam and other faiths is lacking in some schools – wasting what could be an opportunity to clear up the murky stereotypes. Sherif Nathoo, a Canadian-African Muslim of Indian descent, says he is worried about the distorted image of a Muslim being publicly presented. “The media has always stereotyped us negatively. Now it will increase levels of prejudice and racism in Canada.

Why must it be all about ‘Muslim terrorists’?” Nathoo, in his third year of hospitality and tourism, is angered by the fact that the attack is not being taken in its political context – possibly the result of a battle for territory and not a war about religion. “When America launches an offensive, you don’t hear ‘Christian America Attacks’, but now that Middle Eastern people are suspected, we see headlines that assume the terrorists are Muslim. Why does the media want to spread the image that Muslims are a threat to society?” Nathoo is well aware of the blanketing fear that has enveloped Muslim and Arab immigrants in Canada.

“People will be afraid to acknowledge that they are Muslim.” Sociology Professor Vappu Tyyskä, says the media has to walk a fine line when coverting the murky question of who is to blame for the attacks. “We must not sink into stereotyping, or give into hatred and anger as a society,” she says. “While it is important to get out the word that there have been different incidents in Canada targeting Muslims, too much coverage might inflame the tensions further.”

While some religious leaders have suggested that Muslims and anyone who fits that broad description should stick close to home while the United States plots its retaliation, others say hiding is not the answer. Speaking up about stereotypes is a better solution, says Fauzan Khan.

“If you are being harassed, or are afraid you may be, we have systems in place. In the city, and at university, there are support services who can help. Go to them. Do not respond to violence with violence.” On campus, Ryerson’s office of harassment prevention on the fourth floor of Jorgenson Hall is an anonymous body that will investigate all reports of discrimination. The rational recreation is to fight back. But some would rather disappear. Fatima Khan, is appalled at the thought of being labelled a terrorist because of her race.

“I don’t want to walk through the campus with the title ‘Muslim’,” she says. “I feel like this is the worst time to be Muslim.” And she is all too aware that there is no escape. “A name doesn’t get more Arab-sounding than Fatime,” says Khan, visibly concerned. She is a Pakistan international student from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Fatima is a particularly popular name in both the Arab and Muslim world because it was the name of the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.

Students who are not Muslim are worried about the widening division and hate crimes. Luke Marciniak, a first-year computer science student, says the images of Palestinians dancing in the streets after the reports of the attacks only helped fuel the firing burning in North America. “I would be afraid if I was Muslim, at least for the nest couple of weeks,” he says. But Marciniak has tried to himself on the other side of what he sees on television.

“The media keeps showing us clips of those Palestinians dancing. If I were Palestinian and the U.S. has supported violence against me, I would be dancing in the streets too.”

Not only Muslims are critical of the media’s linkage of their faith and terror. Dominika Piotrowska, a social work student says, “the media keeps preparing us for (U.S.) retaliation with photos of Osama bin Laden and reminding us about the terrorist acts of Muslims, but that only starts up general negative stereotypes against Muslims.”

At a televised press conference in Ottawa last week, Jean Chrétien sounded a note of caution, saying he wanted, “to emphasize we are in a struggle with terrorism, not against any one community or faith.”

Despite some mixed messages from Toronto-area leaders like McCallion, Tyyskä says the city can draw on the multicultural strength that brings it together. Most students at Ryerson have friends who have ethnically diverse backgrounds and studying with them, she found, helps nudge attitudes towards tolerance.

“Toronto’s strength it it’s multiculturalism,” she says. “There are interfaith organizations, with members who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian. This interaction gives people a chance to heal.” But as the world faces a new breed of terrorism, millions of Muslims are plagued by a depressingly old terror as they are marginalized by fear and misunderstanding.

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